Great Expectations

November 22nd, 2014

The annual Convention of the Diocese of New York last weekend spawned the usual number of socially conscious resolutions. Numerous reports were presented of the good works performed by the diocese’s 200 congregations.

But the workshop on parish growth noted that the Episcopal Church tends often to have low expectations of its membership. They aren’t expected to tithe their incomes or attend church every Sunday. They don’t need to raise their children in the church or profess all the doctrines of the Creeds.

The workshop leader said that this attitude wasn’t conducive to church growth. Instead, church members should be encouraged to strive beyond their comfort zones. And church leaders shouldn’t be afraid to challenge their congregations to work harder and do more. I can’t think of anything in this advice that is contrary to the imperatives of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. –J. Douglas Ousley

For Gratitude Week at Incarnation

October 27th, 2014

One of the first speakers I ever heard on the subject of giving—at a time when “stewardship” was an unfamiliar word in the Episcopal Church—said that Christians shouldn’t make donations to the church out of a sense of duty. Nor should they tithe because they felt guilty if they didn’t.

            Rather, he said, Christians should make their offerings from a sense of gratitude for all that we have received from a loving God. We should give because we are thankful; we should give because we enjoy the fruits of God’s creation.

            And not only is this the right attitude. It also feels better! –J. Douglas Ousley


John Andrew, RIP

October 17th, 2014

One of the great figures of the Episcopal Church in this city. The Rev. Canon John Andrew, OBE, died this morning following a stroke. By means of his truly charismatic personality and remarkable preaching, he turned St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue from a sleepy backwater into a national center of classical Anglican worship. Rarely does one person have such an institutional effect.

John Andrew was a mentor to me. He preached at my installation as Rector in Rome in 1981 and at my installation at Incarnation in 1985. He also gave the homily at the funeral of my first wife in 2008. He loved my sons, John and Andrew.

At a time when clergy are so often bland and meek, John Andrew never suffered fools gladly. He was a giant in the clerical world. May he rest in peace. –J. Douglas Ousley

Courtroom Rituals

October 15th, 2014

I am on jury duty in federal court this week and next. Yesterday, I was nearly selected for a projected two-week trial; I was excused at the last minute, after spending the day hearing juror interviews in a beautifully restored courtroom.

As I had never been on a jury and rarely visited courts, I saw the whole scene with an outsider’s perspective. Yet from the clergyman’s point of view, I couldn’t help noticing the juridical parallels with church rituals. The judge in robes, seated high above everyone else, directing the proceedings; all lawyers and prosecutors in black suits; many repeated speeches and actions; solemnity prevailing even in the audience–no talking, reading, eating. 

In other words, very like church! Which I guess is good–people take the judicial process seriously. And it is, indeed, the secular guarantor of political freedom, as our faith guarantees our spiritual freedom. –J. Douglas Ousley

Low Point near the High Line

October 3rd, 2014

The article in the New York Times yesterday was only the latest of many media considerations of the current dispute at General Theological Seminary in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. Eight faculty members declared they could and would no longer fulfill their contracts unless seminary trustees addressed their criticism of Dean Kurt Dunkle’s leadership. The Board promptly declared that the faculty members had resigned and the Dean has since been planning to keep the classes going without them.

Among the nastier aspects of this situation are quotes in a faculty letter to the trustees that have the Dean expressing racist and sexist prejudices. On the other hand, the faculty members did take the risk of going over the head of the Dean; in my own experience on boards of directors, boards usually prefer to back the CEO in such cases. If the trustees don’t have confidence in him or her running the organization, they should find someone else to lead, rather than attempting to micro-manage alongside the appointed administration.

Although I have not myself been impressed with previous public statements from Dean Dunkle, and I find the faculty charges to be disturbing (especially the quotations), I am also sympathetic with students and alumni who are trying to stay on the sidelines in this dispute. The waters are muddy and it is by no means obvious to me what side God is on. Very sad. –J. Douglas Ousley

Religion and Politics on Madison Avenue

September 29th, 2014

“More Americans Back a Voice for Religion in Politics” proclaimed the headline of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. 

The results of the poll the Journal was reporting indicate that, in fact, 49% of Americans think that churches should express views on political issues and 48% think the churches should keep out of politics. The real interest of the poll was that there are now “more” Americans on the positive side than there used to be.

Of course, both sides of the political spectrum are themselves divided: some conservatives and liberals favor intervention in issues they feel passionate about; others believe in strict separation of church and state.

My own view is that in all except the most extreme and important issues, politics should stay out of the pulpit. I recently expressed concern about the rise of anti-Semitism in a sermon, for example. But I have confined my views on gay marriage to this blog and to other forums where debate is possible. I believe Christians must oppose anti-semitism, while they might hold different positions on homosexuality.

All in all, I think the churches should be very careful about making pronouncements on controversial secular topics. –J. Douglas Ousley

How Am I Doing?

September 16th, 2014

When he was mayor of New York City, the late Ed Koch used to begin his press conferences by asking, “How am I doing?” Being a feisty New Yorker, he expected honest answers and he was more than willing to parry criticisms.

Today, there are few politicians with the courage to ask for face-to-face comments on their performance. Yet Koch asked a question of himself that they should ask–and we should ask, too. How are we doing–as Christians, as citizens, as neighbors, as family members? It’s also a good question to pose as members of church communities–how are our parishes doing? What are we doing well? Not so well? What means are we using to evaluate our work for God’s Kingdom?

In our parish, we are beginning a process of self-examination and planning called, “Incarnation 2020.” At the beginning of the school year and the autumn uptick in activity, this seems like the right thing to be doing. In this regard, at least, we can answer Ed Koch’s question, “OK.” –J. Douglas Ousley

A New Trec

September 9th, 2014

The Task Force for Reimagining the Church (TREC) has just issued a report. The report summarizes what TREC considers to be the changes the Episcopal Church has to make in order to stop its decline and expand its mission.

While there is a lot of predictable jargon and ious talk, there’s also some substance to the Task Force’s views. The bureaucracy of the National Church is still weighty, even after years of cuts. The structure of General Convention permits too many resolutions to allow for serious discussion of anything, and the whole meeting is too big and too long and too expensive.

In addition, TREC recognizes that only real cultural change will jolt the Episcopal Church out of its lethargy. This view is often expressed by the Bishop of New York and while I am skeptical that our church will be able to reform its corporate structure soon, the report is a step in the right direction. –J. Douglas Ousley



August 18th, 2014

The Nominating Committee charged with selecting candidates for the election of a Presiding Bishop next summer has just issued its list of qualities desired in their ideal candidate. 

Like the secular political scene, the Episcopal Church arena is filled with predictable statements. Is anyone surprised that the committee wants a Presiding Bishop who has an “authentic” spiritual life–as opposed to inauthentic? Is anyone surprised that the new PB will love diversity and want to make us even more diverse? (My own prediction is that the next PB will be a person of color–the first. My choice right now would be the Bishop of North Carolina.)

Of course, as I noted in a previous post, if the current PB decides to run for a second term, all bets are off. Given the current gentility of the House of Bishops, it’s doubtful anyone would dare to run against her.

Meanwhile, membership in the church continues to decline and the only contribution the national bureaucracy seems to make to the life of the church is a steady stream of predictable pronouncements on selected political issues. –J. Douglas Ousley

Pacifism Bombs

August 11th, 2014

I was once a card-carrying member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, and I still have considerable sympathy for the pacifist position as represented, for example, by the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Seeking peace was incontrovertibly essential to Christ’s concept of the Kingdom of God.

The problem is that the real world in which we Christians live seems to be getting more and more violent. It’s hard to see in some cases how we as a nation can help our unfortunate fellow men and women without using the violent means at our disposal. Letting fellow Christians be slaughtered because we would have to take up arms to help them seems to be as passive as it would be pacifist. It would seem to be a shirking of our responsibility to care for the least of our brethren.

I don’t know if the Episcopal Peace Fellowship even exists any more, so little is it in the news. And while I recognize the need for military action against oppression and terrorism, the decline of the pacifist position is sad. –J. Douglas Ousley